FOXBORO -- About a year ago at this time, frustration had set in.
Following a jubilant Day 1 of training camp for the Patriots offense, it got tougher and tougher. Problems popped up persistently. Answers were hard to come by. And it was around this time last year that the protection schemes the Patriots were trying to implement -- using different terminology than they had used under previous offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels -- were short-circuiting.
Anyone who was present for practice could see there were issues. Mac Jones looked frustrated. The offensive practices were run aground for stretches because they simply couldn't get things blocked.
"A lot of it's just figuring out the scheme and making sure that there's no free guys," Jones said last August. "That's the biggest thing for me. As long as there's no one free, I should be able to make the throws, just like any quarterback can."
Those practices were harbingers of what was to come for the Patriots' passing game. With Matt Patricia coaching the offensive line and coordinating the offense, then eventually handing the o-line reins to assistant Billy Yates, Jones ended up one of the least-effective passers against the blitz in the NFL.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Jones was 42nd in the NFL in quarterback rating against five or more rushers (70.7). He was 43rd out of 43 qualifiers in his percentage of passes against five or more rushers that resulted in positive EPA (28.4). Per Pro Football Focus, he was 37th in yards per attempt when blitzed (6.0) and 40th in completion percentage (53.9).
Fast forward to this training camp, and it would make sense that Bill Belichick would want to see his offense work against blitzes early and often. That's exactly what they've done.
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Defensive play-caller Steve Belichick hasn't been shy about dialing up pressure. Jerod Mayo also has the ability to occasionally send a blitzer in at the last minute, just before the snap, with a subtle signal from the sideline.
The results for the offense have been mixed. But the first unit took advantage of one blitz Sunday that had players on that side of the ball celebrating. Jalen Mills came screaming off the left edge. Free runner. But the offense had an answer. Jones saw it. Running back Kevin Harris did, too. Harris leaked out into the flat, caught the quick-trigger pass, and waltzed into the end zone.
Jones sought out Harris for a mini celebration afterwards. Hunter Henry quietly pumped his fist. It was an easy pitch and catch. But it meant something to a group that has set out to be improved in all facets of the game this season, including attacking the blitz.
It meant that they were on their details. They were on the same page. A problem presented itself. And they solved it. There was reason to be encouraged.
There was a play later in the practice when the Patriots appeared to get an all-out pressure, leading to a free runner that forced a quick incompletion. Their work on the blitz-pickup front is far from complete. But there have been signs of progress. Which is something they couldn't always say about their offense this time last year.
On the move
Jones seemed to be feeling pretty good soon after his hot-route strike to Harris. On the next snap, he had nowhere to go with the football and scrambled. There was room there for him to get all the way to the goal line before meeting a decelerating Ja'Whaun Bentley. Once Jones crossed the goal line, he spun the football and waved to the crowd to get them to increase the volume of their cheers.
Interestingly, on Jones' next series, on the first snap, he scrambled again. This time, Jabrill Peppers met him at the goal line and wrapped him up as if to say, "Not this time."
Jones went 6-for-10 in the most competitive periods of practice, compared to an 11-for-13 showing for Zappe. Jones was "sacked" three times near the end of practice, explaining the discrepancy in the number of attempts for the two quarterbacks.
Jones targeted backs on four of his 10 attempts. He targeted rookie Demario "Pop" Douglas for the first time (incomplete), he tested Matt Sokol's range deep (incomplete), and he found Mike Gesicki short of the goal line for their first competitive completion in four practices. For a description of one of the more clever completions of the day to Rhamondre Stevenson, check out our Stock Watch piece from Day 4.
Scheming up a plan
The pads are about to come on, which means more running plays. Which may mean more play-action passing. It also may mean some run-pass option work.
It appeared as though, prior to competitive team periods, center Kody Russey was snapping out of shotgun and then hauling up the field as Jones and other quarterbacks faked handoffs and hit on bubble screens. Hard to know if there was a run option to those reps, or if there will be one added soon, but it would not be surprising to see Bill O'Brien and Jones put their heads together to come up with an RPO package that would be unveiled at some point in the near future.
Both have plenty of experience in that world, and perhaps it's a world they can broaden after the Patriots dabbled in RPOs last year. (You'll remember Marcus Jones' long catch-and-run touchdown against the Bills on Thursday Night Football came on an RPO.)
Offseason award winner
Per Field Yates of ESPN, Mac Jones was one of a dozen offseason award winners this year. Bill Belichick shed some light on what exactly that means prior to the start of Sunday's practice.
"We take input from all the coaching staff members," he said. "The strength staff, conditioning, on the field, meeting rooms, classroom, leadership, so a little bit of everything... [Attendance] is a factor, yeah. Participation is a factor, sure. All those things are all kind of taken into consideration. Kind of nominate the guys and pick the ones that we think are most deserving. There’s a lot of guys that had great offseasons. I wouldn’t limit it to our offseason award winners, but they stood out."
Jones was a captain last season as a second-year player. He's locked in as the top quarterback (despite an impressive performance by backup Bailey Zappe on Day 4). And he had a strong offseason. Looks like he's in line to be named a captain once again.
Belichick was asked if offseason award winners are tone-setters and leaders.
"That’s part of it, yeah," Belichick said. "Part of it’s again, leadership, participation, improvement. It’s not any one thing, we just kind of put all together and take guys from various positions. It’s hard to compare an offensive lineman to a defensive back. You know, weight room numbers, speed and things like that.
"(But) within the groups, those guys were the ones that stood out the most."